Friday, May 28, 2010

Six Tips for Creating Character Emotion

Emotions drive everything a character does. Every word they utter, every facial expression, every action is the product of what he/she feels. Creating Character Emotion by Ann Hood is an excellent source for writers looking to delve deeper into their characters hearts. I recommend this book to anyone who doesn't already own it. It's one I personally reach for time and again when my characters start to feel forced or fake. I've gleaned six basic tips from the book to share here.

1. Give your own emotions to your characters. This doesn't mean to make your characters like you, or even think the way you do. You're just letting them borrow some of your soul. For example, in my first novel, Seeds of Change,  my protagonist visits her dying grandmother. This is obviously a scene that requires some emotional charge. At the time of writing, I'd never watched anyone, let alone someone I love dearly, die. But I had visited my Parkinsons afflicted grandfather in a nursing home. We were neighbors and best friends when I was young. I hadn't seen him for many years, and seeing him with this illness was extremely difficult for me. I called up that memory before writing my scene, and I used those emotions, put them in a different setting with different people and voila.

2. Avoid emotional cliches. We've all read them at least a hundred times, and some of us have even written them. The single tear rolling down the cheek, the pounding heart, the furrowed brow. Cliches do become cliches for a reason. They're usually spot on creative descriptions. But once you've read something a dozen times, it no longer sparks that oh yes response. It's like eating plain rice. It gets the job done, but doesn't have any flavor. A good way to come up with fresh emotional descriptions is to work off the cliches. Take the pounding heart and have it do something out of the ordinary. Have it tumble or skip or shutter. You get the idea.

3. Follow the golden rule of writing: show don't tell. Rather than stating a character is sad, it's better to paint out the details. Props are a wonderful way to accomplish this. For instance, if your character is depressed, you can show it by using too many wine bottles in the recycle bin, or a house that hasn't been cleaned for too long. You could even have him proclaim happiness to other characters, but carefully selected props will show readers otherwise.

4. Use point of view. If your character finds the negative side of everything, if he has a bad attitude towards life, it's pretty clear he's not a happy individual. Internal monologue is one way to show these qualities. Dialogue is another, very effective method. Let a character say what he feels, in his own voice. On the flip side, dialogue can show a character's emotions by what he doesn't say. A couple on the brink of divorce need not shout at each other to show their failing love. They can just as well have a conversation about a chipped plate, wrought with unspoken feelings, tensions and metaphors. Unexpressed emotions can sometimes prove more powerful.

5. Avoid the obvious. It's okay to state a character's emotion. Doug is sad. But it's important to back up your statement with action. The obvious back up for Doug is sad would be to have him cry. Sometimes our characters will cry. Sometimes they'll do the obvious. That's okay. But not all sadness leads to crying. It's an easy idea to come up with, takes no effort whatsoever. Our job as writers is to keep things fresh, unpredictable. Maybe Doug washes the windows to get his mind off whatever it is that has him down. Or maybe he hitchhikes to Vegas and puts his entire life savings on red. You decide.

6. Remember, emotions are complex. Rarely do we feel only one emotion at any given time. A character going through a divorce might feel angry, confused, disappointed, and afraid all at once. Think of all the emotions associated with a wedding day, a job interview, sky diving. A few well chosen props, fresh descriptions, unpredictable actions and telling dialogue will have characters jumping from the page and into readers minds and hearts.

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